Today was the Blenheim triathlon – I did the sprint (750m swim, 19.8km bike, 5.4km run). The bike and run were likely to be OK – but my open water swim struggles have been well documented.
I got to Blenheim Palace a bit before 9, registered, stuck numbers on the bike and helmet, strapped the timing chip to my ankle and met up with my the friend who had also taken on the triathlon challenge. We were in the same starting wave at 10.20 so set up in the transition zone in the courtyard in front of the palace and headed to the lake.
Covid meant the swim used a ‘time trial’ start – we were arranged in two lines and set off in a constant stream of pairs. As a barely competent swimmer, I had already decided to hang back at the start to avoid the scrum of flying elbows and feet so the start suited me quite well – apart from the fact that there was no place to acclimatise for the water temperature. Luckily, the water was not very cold but (thank goodness) was cool enough for wetsuits to be compulsory as I need all the extra buoyancy I can get.
The swim was about 500m straight (which looks a dauntingly long way from the start) and then just one sharp left turn. I set off as best I could and did a mix of sighting for myself and following others on the assumption that they knew what they were doing.
I was really grateful that our swim training had not adopted the marathon approach of not doing the full race distance beforehand. I know that 750m is no great swim for most people but the fact that I’d already done 1km in open water twice was a great comfort.
As expected, I was behind the average swimmer pace and was overtaken by more than I overtook but It went better than I could have expected at 18 minutes for the 750m. I got out of the water to be greeted by a 0.4km run, uphill, to transition. It always feels that I put in a disproportionate amount of effort into the swimming compared to the speed I achieve so the run to transition was surprisingly hard.
I managed to find my place in transition pretty quickly and peeled off my wetsuit a bit faster than usual. I am right in the middle of all the size and weight ranges they recommend for the size of suit I have but it is thick and tight so I do struggle with it. The key is peeling it off while it is still wet on the outside – and in a triathlon that’s very likely to be the case. I was wearing a tri-suit underneath, so I slipped into my running shoes, put on my number belt, remembering to put on my helmet before touching the bike.
I got out of transition after what seemed like a very long time and managed to get my feet into the toe clips on the pedals. I swapped out my clipless pedals to avoid another shoe change and running the bike in and out of transition, in cleats.
It was three laps on the bike – I can count up to three quite reliably but was a bit worried about the counting in the heat of battle. The course was most certainly ‘undulating’ (I saw some people walking up the steepest hill) but quite picturesque as it circled the part of the lake we’d just swam in and crossed the famous early 18C Grand Bridge built by Vanburgh.
People seemed to be quite well behaved about not drafting and I enjoyed myself – the bike is more familiar territory than the water. I found myself counting and by my reckoning I passed 121 people while being passed by only 17.
Heading back into transition 2, I racked the bike, removed my helmet and spun the belt to put the number at the front. That did all feel fairly quick and I headed out for two laps of the run course on jelly legs. Almost immediately, I missed the turn onto the running lap and found myself heading towards the finish. A slightly embarrassing about turn and I was off in the right direction. Again, it was undulating but quite picturesque as it circled another part of the lake and, again, crossed the famous bridge.
I tried to remember the mantra ‘if it’s not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough’ but found little difficulty in making it hurt – even though I wasn’t running very fast. I probably didn’t think enough about pacing and put too much into the ride – but I did manage to overtake a few more people than those who overtook me.
I won’t deny I was happy to see the finish line – the ride and the run were short but coming after the swim made them a bit harder than I’d expected and I pushed myself on the cycle leg as I was having fun.
I cleared my stuff out of transition and spent some time being a spectator watching other competitors ‘enjoying’ their own challenges.
Of course, a sprint triathlon is no big deal for most, but for me it was largely about taking on the open water swim, so completing it was great. Total time 1h 37m 37s.
My splits were:
Swim (750m): 18 minutes
T1: 6:04 minutes (including the run to get there)
Ride (19.8km): 40.39 @29.24kph
T2: 1:49 minutes
Run (5.4km): 31:06 @ 5.45m/km
I was 13 seconds per 100m slower than the average of all swimmers, 2 seconds/km ahead of the average run speed, but 3.48kph ahead of the average bike speed.
Overall, I was in the top third of competitors (out of nearly 4000), and the top 45% of men (out of 2286).
In my 65-69 age group, I was 6th out of 34, particularly thanks to my ride pulling back time lost to others on the swim.
It was certainly enjoyable, but hard – although I suppose I made it that way by trying to make up on the bike and the run what I was going to lose in the water, recognising that my swim speed ‘is what it is’.
My triathlon partner had a really successful race too. Like me, he swam faster than he’d have expected, had a fine ride and, in particular, he had a great run.
A very well organised event. Not exactly ‘personal’ given the scale of it, although the marshals were friendly and efficient (apart from the efficiency of the one who sent me in the opposite direction when I asked about the exit from transition). It felt like a really good introduction to triathlons with an open water swim and with the advantage of the whole thing being in the Palace grounds.
Considering where we both came from (in terms of the swimming in particular, where not being able to do it at all was a real possibility), I think we have every reason to be pleased … in a very modest way, of course.